I was privileged just three days ago to play golf in the Marine Toys for Tots Golf Classic at the beautiful Mount Vernon Country Club in Washington, D.C. The Lord blessed us with great weather, great fellowship, and some fine golf as well.
What a joy to be have been a part of this great outing for the third year in a row. Lt. General Cooper (retired) announced at the beginning of this year's tournament that last year's Golf Classic raised $160,000.00 and they were on track to do just as well if not more this year. In addition, Toys for Tots is also one of the top fifty philanthropic charities in the world with 2005 donations of $150,000,000.00. Toys for Tots is a tremendous charity which does valuable work for children all around the world.
Then two weekends ago, I had the privilege of ministering outside the Boston area in Leominster, MA at the First Baptist Church. The senior pastor, Lars Lawson, was a gracious host and come to find a very gifted theologian and pastor/teacher as well. He is a dedicated under-shepherd of Christ and we enjoyed some rich and rewarding conversations. To be in the "neighborhood" where men like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and D.L. Moody once ministered was very inspiring. Though time didn't permit us to visit some of the historical sites attributed to these men, it was a joy to encourage all who came out of God's Word and worship in song.
On Friday evening and Saturday morning I was part of a conference where they had assigned me four topics to teach: Reforming music; Reforming worship; Reforming evangelism; and Reforming fellowship. This wonderful church holds dearly to the 1689 London Baptist Confession and have stood firm among much opposition to the truth claims of Scripture. It was an honor to partner with them in ministry.
I had asked Lars if he had done much writing and for permission to post some of his articles from time to time on the blog and website. He graciously agreed and sent this article to me as what I hope will only be the first of many contributions from him here at COT. His first installment at COT is on the issue of discernment. There is almost a "famine in the land" when it comes to finding books that have been written about this subject of discernment; but yet it remains, IMHO, one of the great and pressing needs in the body of Christ today.
Here is part one of his excellent and much needed article on the issue of discernment. May your hearts be encouraged by his powerful insights and words.
Grace and peace to you,
2 Cor. 4:5-7
The Need for Discernment
in These Perilous Times Pt 1
by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD
"It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ. It is plainly by this means, principally, that he has prevailed against all revivals of religion, since the first founding of the Christian church."
--Jonathon Edwards in the Preface to
Few evangelicals would challenge the assertion that spiritual discernment is sorely needed in these days. I suspect also that most would agree with the notion that professing Christians are generally undiscerning. However, I also suspect that most would say that they view themselves as having better skills of discernment than others who profess faith in Christ. I would suggest that regardless where we are in relation to others respecting this matter, that all of us are in various degrees in need of developing our ability to discern the will of God respecting ourselves and the world about us. I hope in this article to expand our awareness of our need for discernment by considering the challenge that is before us. We will first consider the Scriptures’ emphasis for our need of discernment. Then we will consider the present society in which we live and the unique challenges which it imposes upon Christians. Finally, we will point out some specific areas within evangelicalism that underscore our need to be a discerning people.
The Biblical Emphasis on Discernment
The Scriptures speak to the need of God’s people to be discerning in order that they may understand fully the will of God for their lives. There is much error about us and God’s people are capable of embracing much of it to their own detriment. This is so due to their ignorance of truth, the craftiness of deceivers, and their own susceptibility to being deceived. Epaphras, a servant of Christ, was concerned for the young Christians at Colossae respecting this matter. Paul wrote of him, “Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God (Col. 4:12). It would do us well to have the same healthy anxiety for ourselves and others about us.
The Bible refers frequently to the concept of discernment. The two words that are most frequently used to connote this process are the Hebrew word bin and the Greek word diakrino. According to Jay Adams in his book, A Call to Discernment, the Hebrew word is used 247 times in the Old Testament. The word has been translated variously as “understand”, “discern”, and “distinguish.” When it is used, the word suggests “to separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them.” Adams goes on to write, “It refers to the process by which one comes to know or understand God’s thoughts and ways through separating those things that differ.” The Greek word is used similarly in the New Testament. It too refers to a process of separating or discriminating whereby truth may be set apart in relief from that which is false. In short, discernment is a filtering process by which a person distinguishes and separates good from the bad, right from wrong, and truth from error.
We should emphasize that discernment is not merely a function of the mind. Discernment is a spiritual work which uses the mind to ascertain what is true. And as a spiritual work, only the Spirit of God can illuminate the mind, thereby enabling us to make proper judgments. As Paul wrote, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:11-14). Take note, and this is important: the mind is still in the process. One must “understand” with the mind, but understanding can only come through the illuminating work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit illuminates the mind with spiritual words--words of Scripture--as they are pondered.
The New Testament teaches that the ability to discern is linked with the measure of the maturity of a Christian. Consider Hebrews 5:11-14. The writer was addressing Hebrew Christians of the first century who were under the threat of persecution for their faith. They faced the temptation of removing themselves from hardship by renouncing Christ and returning to Judaism, which was an accepted and legal religion of the empire. The writer set forth a word of exhortation to them, urging them to persevere. Abandoning Jesus Christ and returning to Judaism was not an option for them. There was no return possible. Christ and the salvation He brought had fulfilled Old Testament religion. Among the many arguments set forth, the writer sought to show how superior Christ’s high priesthood was to the Levitical priesthood of the old covenant. The ministry of Christ as a high priest resembled that of the Old Testament priest Melchizedec, who was neither a descendant of Abraham nor a Levite. But the writer paused, and gave a rebuke to his readers. For although the matters he discussed were complex, they would not have posed difficulty for the Hebrews had they not been “dull of hearing” (5:11). Furthermore, the writer rebuked them, for they were but babies when they should have long since become mature teachers (5:12). The writer then explains what constitutes maturity in verses 13 and 14: “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who “because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” The measure of Christian maturity, by definition, is the ability to exercise discernment. We will say more respecting these verses later.
We find the same link between discernment and spiritual immaturity in Ephesians 4:11-16. I referred to this passage earlier when I sought to emphasize my responsibility as a pastor to instruct the body in the matter of discernment. But look at the wording of verse 14 once again: Paul identifies undiscerning persons as “children” in need of growth who are “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Again, to increase in the ability to discern is to move toward spiritual maturity.
The Pursuit of Truth and Wisdom
Since discernment is the activity by which we may discover the truth of God, we would do well to consider the value and emphasis which Scripture places on truth. First, consider truth with respect to ourselves: The truth has the ability to set us free (John 4:23). We were saved upon hearing the word of truth (Eph. 1:13), for God begot us with the word of truth (James 1:18). Furthermore, after becoming a Christian, the truth sanctifies us (John 17:7). In contrast, the unsaved are “destitute of the truth” (1 Tim. 6:5), and they do not obey the truth (Rom. 2:8). Moreover, they do not love the truth that has the power to save them (2 Thes. 2:10,12). Although some unsaved people come to some knowledge of the truth, they may hold the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), or be opposed to the truth (2 Tim. 3:8). Some change the truth of God into a lie (Rom. 1:25). Others are ever-learning but never come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7).
The nature of God is associated very closely with the concept of truth. His word is truth (John 17:7). Jesus Himself is the truth (John 14:6) and we may find truth in Him (Eph. 4:21). Jesus was a minister of the truth (Rom. 15:8). The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The judgment of God is always according to truth (Rom. 2:8).
According to the Scriptures, how should we view truth? We must think on whatsoever things are true (Phil. 4:8). We must examine the Scriptures daily so that we might know whether the things we hear are true (Acts 17:11). We are not to love in word or tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18). We are to be fellow-helpers of the truth (3 John 3,4), as we walk in the truth (2 John 4), being obedient to the truth (1 Pet. 1:12), as we are girt about with the truth (Eph. 6:14). We are to speak the truth in love as we worship God in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). In addition, we must heed the warnings regarding the truth, for some can go astray from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18). Besides, we all have a propensity to turn our ears from the truth (2 Tim. 4:4). And, for those who go on sinning wilfully after having received the knowledge of the truth, they may expect a "certain, terrifying expectation of judgment" (Heb. 10:27). Therefore, given the emphasis that Scripture places on this matter, should we not be ever mindful, ever vigilant regarding the truth? Do not the above references underscore the need for discernment whereby we may ascertain what is the truth of God and whether or not we indeed have the truth?
The Scriptures also emphasize the importance of acquiring wisdom. Proverbs contains the record of a father impressing and instructing his son of the importance of seeking wisdom. Wisdom in the Bible is a complex matter with many facets. Occasionally wisdom merely refers to human knowledge or the acquiring of human skills or abilities. However, in many biblical contexts wisdom describes the ability to view life from God’s perspective. To gain wisdom is to obtain truth by which we may order our lives. Wisdom, if attained, will enable us to lead good and fruitful lives, as we order our existence in a way that pleases God and elicits His blessing. Wisdom also enables us to recognize evil, error, and dangerous people who would bring ruin to us if they remain unrecognized. Attaining wisdom, we might say, is both the root as well as the fruit of discernment. The ability to discern (or distinguish between) truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil, is to be desired and sought as others would seek for “silver” and “hidden treasures” (Prov. 3:13,14).
On the other hand, consider the teaching of the Bible about the one who lacks wisdom. He troubles his own soul and his entire household. He cannot deliver himself from the evil man or woman, or from the folly of his own soul. He is deceived easily, and he encounters repeated misery, gaining for himself only dishonor, disappointment, and ultimately death (Prov. 1:31ff.; 4:14-19; 5:8-14).
Our Responsibility to Make Judgments
One of the most damaging and biblically errant notions among Christians today is that believers are not suppose to make judgments respecting other people. This is frequently heard: “I am not to judge,” or, it may be worded like this: “Who am I to judge?” With this wrong view of the teaching of Scripture and wrong manner in which we relate to one another, we have forfeited God’s means of correcting much error and recovering many deceived and straying persons. In today’s churches Christians have purposely ceased to exercise thinking respecting questionable practices and persons. This “judge not” attitude has now become so “normal” that there is reluctance or refusal to confront Christians when they are seen acting in some blatantly sinful manner; to do so would be perceived as being judgmental. In these days there is very little true exhorting one another; consequently, there is much hardness (insensitivity) among us due to the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). This is a masterstroke of the devil which he has brought upon God’s people. Because he has kept them from performing the work of discernment and acting upon it, he has placed many securely in his stocks. If your attitude toward the world and Christians about you is never judge, never rebuke, never correct, or condemn, then you are of little real service in God’s kingdom. You are unable to provide true spiritual assistance to those about you. Perhaps you can provide comfort for others for having shared in their misery, but you will be unable to bring them to experience deliverance from their condition. But further, you yourself are easy prey to a deceiver; you will be easily led into false doctrine, for false teachers will readily beguile you.
“But does not the Word of God say in Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’?” Yes, but that verse and others like it is not condemning the work of discerning; rather, it is condemning a censorious spirit, which is seen in one who, with a spirit of anger or intolerance, tries to dismiss or discredit other persons in order to damage their reputation or justify himself. To this kind of person the Lord says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” A person who tries to pluck a splinter out of another person’s eye when he has a beam in his own is to be regarded as a hypocrite (Luke 6:42), but it is not the act of trying to remove a splinter, but the fact that he is equally at fault which reveals his hypocrisy. He is first to remove the log from his own eye “then” he will see clearly to remove the splinter that is in his brother’s eye (Luke 6:42). We are to be in the business of spotting and removing splinters--discerning and correcting errant belief and practice--but we are first to perform this work on ourselves.
Now it is true that the Scriptures tell us that we are incapable of judging the desires and motives of hearts; that is something only God can and will one day do. But we are commanded to make assessments, that is, judgments, respecting ours and others’ attitudes, actions, and general character. How are you going to obey Titus 3:10 in rejecting a “divisive” person unless you first recognize and identify him as a divisive person? How are you to disassociate from a “disorderly” person described in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, unless you first assess one to be such? How are you to “expose” the “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11) unless you identify them when you see them? You must perform the work of discernment if you are to obey the Lord in these matters. The Bible commands us to be discerning people, and we are incapable of governing ourselves or of truly helping others if we are unable to do so. King Solomon became the wisest man who ever lived, apart from the Lord Jesus, because he sought wisdom from the Lord. “So Give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Thine?” (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon could not rule his people without wisdom, and we cannot govern our lives without wisdom.
The Present Societal Setting
The Christian’s need for discernment at this time in history is very great. Protestant Christendom appears to be in a mass state of confusion. Everything is in upheaval. The entire fabric of what once distinguished Protestant Christianity is being ripped to shreds. Long-held tenants of the faith which were once proclaimed and defended tenaciously are being relegated as either outdated or relatively unimportant matters in the context of our modern society. Strange doctrines, which are either new or ones once soundly rejected by earlier generations of Christians, are now becoming accepted and even popular without much resistance. Christians are being “tossed here and there by waves” and are blown about by “every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” False teachers promoting their heresy abound. There are reasons to believe that Christians may be facing more difficult times than have we ever known in history. Why is this occurring to this degree in these days?
There are many reasons, but we will only cite a few causes at this point.
First, it is possible that we are in the final days before the Lord’s return. I do not know that we are, although I hope it is the case. However, if we are in the last days, we can expect the spiritual environment of the world to become more cloudy, less defined, than ever before. Thus we find ourselves in a wicked, spiritual environment in which there is great potential of being deceived. Paul wrote to young Timothy, “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come” (2 Tim. 3:1). He went on to describe conditions characterized by ungodly and unscrupulous men who peddle deception (vs. 6,7,13). However, he sought to give encouragement to young Timothy, “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and have become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired of God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-16). Paul assured Timothy that in his possession of the Scriptures, he had the means to deal with every kind of error he would ever face, enabling him to discern truth from error, right from wrong, and good from evil.
The second reason which suggests that we live in dangerous times and are in need of discernment, is that we have experienced a monumental societal shift, especially since the Second World War. We are now living in a post-Christian society. The “world” is in some ways more worldly than before. We are no longer in a culture that is “Christian”; rather, it is wholly secular. And we as Christians live within this context day by day. Within this secular society there has been an increasing segmentation of life within the lives of people. A single Christian can live in different worlds, and adopt different values in each of these contexts. Christianity is seen as not being applicable or relevant in the “real world.” As a result, Christianity is no longer the central and unifying factor in many people’s lives, it is but one of many parts and, in the case of many professing Christians, on the periphery. Because Christian values, speech, and behavior seem so out of place in various contexts, the Christian is gagged, and he finds it is easier to act as Nicodemus, assuming the role of a “secret disciple” (John 19:38).
Here is a description of these phenomena:
Our society no longer has a center of' values that exerts a centripolutionetal force on our collective life; similarly, our religion has lost the theological center that once held together thought and practice, private and public. The disappearance of the center in both society and religion has produced emptiness, and for lack of anything better, this emptiness has been filled with various forms of pluralization. The once-whole worlds of society and religion have broken apart into a host of smaller independent worlds, each of which has taken off on its own trajectory.
In society, these subworlds consist of the small units of meaning within which we exist and through which we pass, perhaps even several times a day. Each has its own values, its own cognitive horizons, its own reasons for and ways of doing things, its own class interests. Often, the only connections these worlds have with one another is the fact that the same people have to move amphibiously among them. Within short periods of time, people move from the family setting, with its unique relations and values, to an entirely different set of relationships and values in the workplace, from the company of professional colleagues to the company of personal friends, from service organizations to the larger business and bureaucratic structures in society, from engagement with the world's catastrophes and crises through the news media to the diversions of sitcoms, game shows, and, perhaps, the occasional blue movie. Then we go to church. And lying across these worlds, sometimes identifying with them and sometimes disengaging from them, are the additional cultural distinctions of age, ethnicity, class, and occupation. To move among these multiple worlds smoothly, one has to master a variety of languages of survival and be fluid enough to accommodate a considerable variety of special interests, some of which may be mutually antagonistic. In fact, it is unlikely that such cultural diversity can be surmounted without considerable cognitive dissonance. . . The resulting pressure away from any unifying focus gives powerful impetus to yet another form of pluralization -- a breakdown in the unity of our knowledge and the emergence in its place of a mass of specialized fields and disciplines, each with their own assumptions, procedures, and criteria of judgment. . . The randomness, the lack of connection, the independence of our private worlds of knowing is fracturing our perception of reality.
There is a price for living in this fashion. We experience increasingly what Jay Adams described, “In every area of life, members of the church are continually bombarded with ideas, beliefs, and opinions, most of which are unbiblical and suspect. But they don’t know how to sort things out.” Due to this segmentation of life that has occurred, certain subjects become regarded as “outside” of the realm of the faith. Now, “professionals” in their respective fields are viewed as having greater ability to deal with problems which were at one time under the authority of the church and the Bible. The result of all this is the Christian’s inability to view all of life in the light of, or under the authority of Scripture.
The sheer mass of information which claims to be distinctly Christian is itself enormous. How do we filter through it all? How do we assess this or that book, or tape, or the instruction of any number of teachers which have a worldwide hearing among Christians? I have little knowledge the content of written material which comes into the hands of our church people, to what kind of doctrines they are exposed through “Christian” radio and television, and whether or not they are embracing heresy. There was a time when a pastor could watch and filter material, and thereby insure that his people could be fed good, godly, material. That day is gone. People themselves now fend for themselves and must wade through the mountains of material. But if they cannot discern, they have no means to perform this task. Consequently they are vulnerable and easily led into error.
Third, but related to the second, we are now experiencing a monumental philosophical shift in all of western society which has greatly affected Christian thinking. We are now living in a time when truth is no longer the primary concern of Christians. If it were, then we would be okay, for we would be pursuing truth and by doing so recognizing and rejecting the error. But truth no longer is the chief concern. Again, this has something to do with society. Sociologists are now convinced that a major societal shift has occurred in the last 20 years of this century. Before, we were in the age of Modernism (generally regarded as covering the period of 1789-1989). It was an age in which truth was sought, by Christian and non Christian, for it was believed by all that truth was obtainable. The evangelical Christian sought truth in the Scriptures; the secular modernist sought truth in his evolutionary view of science. Then the modernist attacked the Christian, he charged that what the Bible taught was not true.
But now it is recognized that we have entered a new era, which has been termed Post-Modernism. The characteristic of this age is that the idea of truth itself is now challenged.
Until the last two decades the Western world thought itself capable of arriving at truth in all arenas through scientific enquiry. We have not thought in postmodern terms. Many of us still consider ourselves to be living in the modern world. Yet that modern world has given way to postmodernity. Postmodernity describes a dislocating of human condition that is being experienced in these last years of the twentieth century. We say it is ‘dislocating’ because it tends to throw people out of the worldviews they have traditionally held. It is a cultural event happening right now wherever people are educated in and acculturated to Western civilization. . . Postmodernism is a new set of assumptions about reality, which goes far beyond mere relativism. It impacts our literature, our dress, our art, our architecture, our music, our sense of right and wrong, our self-identity, and our theology. Postmodernism tends to view human experience as incoherent, lacking absolutes in the area of absolutes and meaning.
Many postmodernists assume that either no rational structures exist or that we cannot know them. James Sire has characterized five aspects of postmodernism: (1) Things and events do not have intrinsic meaning. There is only continuous interpretation of the world. (2) Continuous examination of the world requires contextual examination; we ourselves are a part of the context. (3) Interpretation depends not on the external text or its author, but on the relative viewpoint and particular values of the interpreter. (4) Language is not neutral, but relative and value-laden. (5) Language conveys ideology.
While modernists’ attacks on Christianity are loosing their force, postmodernists are attacking Christians on different grounds, based on Sire’s five characteristics. We can see that the agenda has moved from that employed by modernists in this past century. For example, modernists would argue in a number of ways that Christianity is not true. Postmodernists, on the other hand, would critique Christianity by claiming that Christians think they have the only truth. The claims of Christianity are rejected because of the appeal to absolute truth. Absolute truth claims will be dismissed by the postmodernist for being “intolerant”--trying to force one’s beliefs onto other people. Postmodernists have genuinely given up on the idea of absolute truth, thus the Church faces new challenges in proclaiming the Gospel to our contemporary world.
As one has said, “In today’s world people do not mind if you search for the truth, just do not claim that you have found it!” The scholars who advocate this new way of viewing things are leading figures in education. Their philosophies shape the goals, organization, and curricula of our schools, colleges, and universities. These scholars claim that they do not impose meaning on texts; rather, they say that words do not have meanings apart from their contexts. We might affirm this statement to a degree, but it is important to know what they mean by “context.” You and I would agree that the meaning of words is shaped as they relate to the other words in their written (or spoken) context. But postmodernists are saying the reader himself is a part of the context. Therefore, it is not what the author intended by the words, but it is how the reader (or hearer) perceives the words which is most important. What they claim is that the meaning does not reside in the words themselves, but in the reader’s inner psychology. It is completely subjective. David Wells described it in this way: “the subjective triumphs completely over the objective.” The following exert sets forth how this plays out in interpreting a text:
Take, for example, the sentence “The sergeant looked at her carefully and then smiled warmly.” What does this mean? The deconstructionist's (postmodernist) answer is that even in the context of a larger text, it all depends on which internal world of meaning fills out the words. A reader approaching the text as light entertainment might be inclined to view the sergeant's warm smile as simply the first small spark of romantic interest. A feminist critic might be inclined to view the sergeant as making a deliberate calculation -- "looked at her carefully" -- in preparation for launching himself on a course of action that might end with seduction or harassment. A recent graduate of a military school might be inclined to find in the sentence a snapshot of' the human face that the army is keener these days to show, in which control (the careful look) and humanity (the warm smile) are blended. The point is that it is the reader, not the author, who is providing the meaning here. And it should be noted that the significance of this shift in the source of the meaning is not simply that it unleashes pluralism in places where it has not been known so plentifully before but that it aims a blow at the entire Western academic tradition in which it has always been assumed that although all words have ranges of meaning, good authors also know how to limit for the reader what possibilities exist in any given passage. If the only meaning in a text is that which any particular community wants to provide, then what is normative in language, as well as in life, has been destroyed.
My opinion is that this philosophy has resulted in a society that not only has no absolute values whatsoever, but it renders an entire population incapable of reasoning through issues. Even worse, if this trend continues, I believe it will render true communication of ideas between individuals impossible, for it removes any notion that the words you use have meaning in and of themselves. Rational communication will become impossible, because true communication can only be conducted by conveying one’s own thoughts precisely to another through words. The result will be an interaction characterized by subjective perception only, void of reasoned communication. Discernment, as we have been describing it, will be non-existent. Educational institutions will become completely ineffectual, even detrimental, to the training of our Christian youth.
A society which functions in this realm will not remain free, although the citizens will not recognize that they no longer have freedom. Those persons who know how to present an image in order to elicit a specific response will hold the power which dominates such a society. The image shapers are already in demand, such as the Dick Morris’ of society, who have a genius for this kind of thing, but who are void of morals and character. People will be (already are) herded as cattle yet completely unaware they are being manipulated.